Wildlife travel is taking off as more opportunities are opening up. Love seeing animals in their natural habitat, but torn between choosing a big game safari or the opportunity to see more varied wildlife? Are you as interested in spotting birds as mammals? Can’t decide between palm-lined beaches for mountain rainforests?
Sri Lanka, formerly Ceylon, takes the either/or out of these travel decisions. That’s because the island nation that’s about the size of West Virginia is home to more varieties of wildlife per square mile than most larger islands. It also has several different climate zones, which means you see different flora and fauna depending on where you go.
Sri Lanka’s Story
Sri Lanka is off the south coast of India and northeast of The Maldives. Geographically and biologically, it’s been in the right place at the right time to become home for amazingly diverse wildlife and a perfect destination for wildlife travel.
The story begins many millennia ago when a chunk of land broke free of the mainland and became an island joined by a land bridge to the continent. Until about 10,000 years ago, this connecting spit of land allowed large animals like elephants and carnivores, such as leopards, to make their way onto the island. As waters rose after the ice age the bridge disappeared and the island wildlife was stranded, which explains why Sri Lanka is home to the largest density of elephants and leopards in the world.
Even the waters surrounding it are unusual for a continental island. For instance, the sea along the shoreline is very deep, so Blue Whales and superpods of Sperm Whales can swim close enough to shore to be seen with the naked eye.
Sri Lanka’s varied climate zones outmatch other islands, too. There are mountain forests, dry zones of scrub, and wet zones with rainforests. Nestled in the mountains and wet zones are “pockets of isolation,” that have allowed new species, like the Rhacophorid Tree Frog and 20 other species, to evolve.
And then there’s the lush rainforest with enough insects and berries to nourish the Sinharaja Bird Wave, said to be the biggest, mixed flock of feeding birds in the world. Sri Lanka is also the last stop on the Central Asian flyway.
Reptiles naturally populate the island, too, including the rare marsh crocodile and 96 varieties of snakes. (Only 5 are poisonous.)
A Living Zoo
Sri Lanka could be called a living zoo for the variety of wildlife visible there, ranging from the largest mammals on earth—the Blue Whale—to the smallest—the pigmy shrew.
I like to spend at least two weeks touring Sri Lanka by train, catamaran, boat, jeep, tractor and on foot. Depending on where you go, you can spot leopards and elusive loris, care for the domesticated elephants and track others in the wild, watch for some of the 150 endemic and migrant bird species, and scan the ocean for whales. I promise, you’ll never be bored!
Favorite Wildlife Travel Destinations in Sri Lanka
Here are some of my favorite reserves, private sites and parks in Sri Lanka for wildlife travel:
- Wilpattu National Park. The largest and oldest national park. Here you’ll find leopards, sloth bears and barking deer.
- Jetwing Vil Uyana. This private nature reserve is the country’s best site for spotting nocturnal loris.
- Polonnaruwa and Bird Island. More than 150 bird species have been observed here. It’s also the home of the Primate Centre in Polonnaruwa.
- Minneriya National Park. This mixed forest is home to deer, crocodiles, wild elephants and flocks of cormorants and painted storks. (From June to September, the largest elephant gathering in the world occurs here.)
- Horton Plains National Park. A highland plateau of diverse forests, waterfalls and lakes, and rocky outcroppings. Herds of sambar deer and many bird species are here.
- Sinharaja Forest Reserve. This UNESCO Natural World Heritage Site and a Biodiversity Hotspot is Sri Lanka’s last undisturbed area of rainforest. The diversity living in this small reserve is unique. You’ll see mixed feeding flocks of birds, leopards, and the purple-faced leaf monkey, among other animals.
- Kosgoda Sea Turtle Conservation Project. Operated by the Wild Life Protection Society of Sri Lanka, the project is devoted to sea turtle conservation. And yes…you’ll be able to release those babies into the sea.
Time Out for Relaxing
One thing that makes Sri Lanka so perfect for wildlife viewing is that there is a such a good infrastructure in place. Traveling around the island is efficient and safe. The guest estates, hotels and eco-lodges are lovely and comfortable. And most of the forest reserves and parks are staffed with highly experienced natural guides.
All This and Culture Too
With the emphasis on wildlife, travelers may not realize that Sri Lanka has a rich history, a vibrant city (Colombo), a rich Buddhist heritage and a population of varied ethnicities, including the Sinhalese, Tamils, Moors, Chinese and aboriginal Vedda.
Africa may have more big game, but Sri Lanka has the best, all-round wildlife viewing, not to mention a heritage well-worth getting to know.